The Giant of Cerne Abbas by H. S. E. Dewar reviewed by Hilda R. Ellis Davidson (1968)

10373This new series of small monographs on West Country Folklore under the editorship of Miss Theo Brown will be warmly welcomed by all who are interested in the subject, and it may be hoped that other regions will now follow the lead of the West Country. In her foreword Miss Brown stresses the need for accurate description, scholarly evaluation, awareness of history and locality, and a respect for the beliefs and practices of the past. These points could not be made more often, and her fore-word encourages us to hope great things of this series.

The hill figures of England are among our most arresting archaeological monuments, yet little careful work has been done on them. It is important for the author of such a monograph to know what has been done, and to make it clear to his readers, without going into complex detail. A very brief bibliography at the end would add considerably to the value of the publication. Here Mr Dewar’s account falls short of the quality of ‘scholarly evaluation’ mentioned by the editor. Compared with a pamphlet on the Red Horse of Tysoe, published by W. G. Miller and K. A. Carrdus in 1965, this account of the Cerne Giant comes off badly, for while they have no footnotes in their pamphlet, they show convincingly that they have covered previous work done extremely thoroughly. There is no mention in this account of the Giant of the full-scale study of the many hill figures of England, still not superseded, by Morris Marples, White Horses and other Hill Figures, or of recent important papers by Professor Hawkes on the Long Man of Wilmington in Antiquity (1965), and by Mrs Diana Woolner on the White Horse in last year’s Folklore (Vol. 78). These two last papers remind us that even if the hill-figures originated in the pre-Roman period, they were preserved by the Saxons, who must presumably have identified them  with figures or symbols of their own gods, the horse with Tiw, the sky- god, the Long Man with Woden, and this giant of Cerne Abbas, surely, with Thunor, the god with his weapon of hammer, axe or club, defending gods and men against monsters, whom the Romans identified with Hercules and Jupiter. Work done on the Red and White horses has already made it clear that hill figures can gradually alter their shape, and also be replaced by different outlines as they were deliberately ‘modernized’ in the course of the centuries. Can we assume that the Cerne Abbas Giant has remained from Roman times exactly as he appears to us today?

These questions cannot be ignored, and so, although there is an interesting account in this little book of local folklore practices connected with the figure, at least one reader is asking for more. But all good fortune to this project, and more booklets are eagerly awaited.

Hilda R. Ellis Davidson, Folklore Vol. 79, No. 1 (Spring, 1968), pp. 79-80.


Tennis 2
Cerne Abbas Giant given tennis makeover in tribute to Andy Murray

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